In the complex weave of Nigerian cultures, a profound and often challenging narrative exists—one that weaves the fabric of societal expectations, selflessness as a revered virtue, and the hidden consequences that women face. These expectations are deeply rooted in tradition, yet they continue to evolve, creating a dynamic tension between preservation and progress.
Selflessness stands as a cornerstone of female virtue in many African societies. Women are often encouraged to prioritize the needs of their families, communities, and others above their desires and aspirations. As noble as that sounds, it is essential to recognize that there exists a thin line: while selflessness can foster unity and cohesion, it can also lead to unspoken hardships and sacrifices. The pressure to conform to these ideals can stifle personal growth, limit opportunities, and create a heavy burden—one that women have always been encouraged and socialized to carry with resilience and grace.
When you ask an average Nigerian who a good woman is, or what a good woman should look like, it almost always begins with her expected role of nurturing others around her, being reliable, and preparing young ones individually or communally for existence—a narrative rooted in our various traditions and cultures. Nigerian women have always been noted for their ability to “build” a home and “preserve” it. This notion has created, for some, a mindset that confuses women, suggesting they’re better off taking on these roles than pursuing other aspirations. Someone once told me, “It should be the dream of every woman to be a caregiver; women aren’t made to desire a career or anything else.” A lot of people do not take into consideration the effect this has on women or the amount of sacrifices this entails. Women are encouraged to lose their identities and sense of self to create an environment that essentially caters to every person’s needs except theirs. Even with the advent of education and exposure, these views remain intact.
What many fail to recognize is continual self-sacrifice often leads to emotional exhaustion and burnout and sometimes creates a feeling of resentment in women toward their partners, family, or anyone who happens to be around them. They feel suffocated. We can not say this is not expected. When you seem to be held down from doing the very thing that fulfills you, it is normal to resent the person who represents the restraint from doing what you want. It not only leads to burnout, it diminishes the sense of self-worth.
“If everyone else is more important than me, do I matter in the grand scheme of things?”
Continuous self-sacrifice reinforces the idea that the worth of a woman is solely tied to their ability to fulfill others’ needs, rather than valuing their aspirations, desires, and well-being. As a result, a lot of women see themselves as less, unimportant, and unable to contribute to society in other meaningful ways. The inability to express freely, without counteraction or retaliation, the desire to pursue one’s happiness, especially at the supposed detriment of someone else contributes to women choosing not to talk about topics like this.
How exactly does this narrative affects women?
The simple answer to this is it limits women. For a long time before now and even still in some less-exposed African communities, the education of men was prioritized over that of women. A UNESCO report in 2022 stated that across the region of Sub-Saharan Africa, 9.5 million girls between the ages of about 6 and 11 don’t have any chance of going to school at all, compared to 5 million boys (Reference: Female Education Statistics in Africa). In modern times and more exposed communities, this is manifested in the reluctance of women to expand or pursue their careers, be financially buoyant, and the attacks that some women face when they decide to go against societal expectations. According to the International Labour Organization, “Women who want to work have a harder time finding a job than men. This problem is particularly marked in Northern Africa and the Arab States, where unemployment rates for women exceed 20%. While vulnerable employment is widespread for both women and men, women tend to be overrepresented in certain types of vulnerable jobs: men are more likely to be working in own-account employment while women are more likely to be helping out in their households or their relatives’ businesses.” (ILO: info stories). All of these show the limits to women’s potential contribution to society.
“My husband asked me to stop working so I could be more present to take care of the home. I’ve always liked working, going out early in the morning and coming back later. It was fulfilling for me. I was able to continue even after having my first child, but upon having my second my husband insisted I stop working, and I was able to reason with him. He suggested that I start up a small business and open a shop close to the home. Doing things like that has never been my interest, but I had to. I saw reason and decided that to fully have time for the family I would have to give up working at the bank.” – Mrs Tinu.
When you socialize women from a young age that their worth is tied to how well they can cater for someone else, you restrict their ability to dream big for a life of their own. Mrs. Tinu’s experience portrays the struggle many African women face when torn between personal aspirations and societal expectations of selflessness. Her narrative reflects the societal pressure on women to prioritize caregiving over personal fulfillment and illustrates the impact of ingrained expectations on the individual lives of African women.
Socialization and culture play a huge role in how people perceive situations, interact with other people, and how they do things in general. A lot of times, we downplay its impact on our collective behavior as a people.
Challenging these norms is not just a matter of personal autonomy; it’s a pivotal step toward establishing equality and fostering a more balanced and empowered society. Embracing equality necessitates acknowledging that women, like men, are multifaceted individuals with dreams, ambitions, and the right to pursue their paths without societal retaliation. It’s about redefining the social narrative to one that acknowledges and respects the agency of women, allowing them to lead fulfilling lives on their terms. Education and more education are vital, not just formally but also informally. We all must come together to change the narrative by choosing to raise our young girls differently and helping women around us understand their autonomy. We do this by contributing to organizations established for this purpose and by being a source of enlightenment to those around us. This is why I go about parroting my view on gendered expectations in Nigeria, and even Africa.
The struggles faced by Nigerian women due to societal expectations of selflessness are deeply entrenched and multifaceted. Mrs. Tinu’s narrative mirrors the struggles many women encounter, balancing personal aspirations with societal pressures. The interview would further illuminate these themes, providing a real-life perspective on the impact of conforming to these expectations. It’s imperative to recognize the constraints these norms impose on women’s growth and independence. Shifting societal narratives, embracing equality, and empowering women to pursue their aspirations without retaliation are vital steps toward a more balanced and equitable society. By collectively challenging these norms and supporting women’s autonomy, we can contribute to a more progressive and inclusive future for all.
In light of this, let us turn to an anonymous interviewee whose experiences will further expand on the very fabric of these societal pressures. Her insights will offer a real-life perspective on the complex interplay of socialization and conforming to the societal expectations of selflessness in Nigerian women, themes central to this article.
Interviewer: If you were to make an important decision, what factors would you be quick to consider?
Anonymous: “If it involves my family or people I care about, I will consider them first.”
Interviewer: Do you feel there is pressure to put other people first before you? In the context of making an important decision.
Anonymous: “The way I was raised acts like the pressure. I just want to make sure other people are happy.”
Interviewer: Have you ever been hurt doing this?
Anonymous: “Yes, of course! Especially when the person does not deserve it, or the person would not do the same if they were in your position.”
Interviewer: Have you considered the impact this has on your mental health?
Anonymous: “I have, and I think many women have. It’s just that talking about these things does not generate the kind of sympathy or support you need. How many people can you tell that you would like to pursue a certain achievement or career and that you would require some help at home? Some women can’t even say this to their husbands without stirring a negative reaction from them. This is our reality.”
Interviewer: Do you think women are raised to always consider the needs of others first?
Anonymous: “Women are raised like this, to always put others first, especially family I feel. Even more in the African society. You are responsible for keeping the home and that might involve sacrificing your wants or needs.”
Interviewer: Do you think it contributes to the gap between women and men in African society?
Anonymous: “Oh, yes it does. That burden sometimes pushes you into a box that limits you. Men can go out and be great things while women are expected to stay home being the pillar of support.”
Interviewer: Hmm, yes the famous “behind every successful man is a great woman” quote.
Anonymous: *laughs* “But women want to be successful too. It also contributes to the high financial dependence of women on men. This financial dependence provides an environment that enables abuse which we have been talking about for a long time now. Sometimes being a woman in Nigeria, I can speak for Nigeria, is to be someone waiting to take on the identity of another.”
Interviewer: Do you share these views?
Anonymous: “Everybody has their priority. I do not subscribe to forcing women against their will. It may not be right in the eyes of society but to each one is their priority. However, I have been raised differently, and I will continue to put others first.”
P.S., Also read I Took A Deep Look At How Nigerian Woman Suffer From Poverty by Chidera Ochuagu.
Gift Davies is a Nigerian creative writer and blogger with an excellent background in these areas. Her passion for encouraging the acceptance of varying perspectives about life and society, in general, sees her implement a persuasive style of writing evident in most of her works.